I always loved travelling to the village in Kakamega during school holidays when I was young. Of course, my family did not enjoy the luxury of spending vacation time in the best beach to bush holiday destinations or flying abroad. But I sure learned the value of visiting my family back in the village. From my community members, I learned about environmental stewardship long before I interacted with the term during an environmental class at the university.
My late grandfather whom I loved to call “Kuka” spent majority of his youthful years in an army camp in Uganda during the World War. He had seen the face of war and I believe that it seemed like heaven when he retired to the tranquil Kakamega forest. Every Sunday morning before going for church service, Kuka requested that parents release their children for nature walks. I made sure that I walked close to him so that I could filter wisdom from his old and husky voice as he told stories and riddles about the forest. One in particular stays fresh in my mind about the forest baboons. Kuka said that if you pick a stone and try to hit a baboon, you start a war against yourself. He said that in his many years of interacting with the baboons, he has never witnessed a baboon fail to catch a stone. Kuka said, “The baboon will always catch the stone and hit you with it for a baboon never misses his target!” Looking back, I now realise that Kuka had been teaching us about environmental responsibility.
During church service, I had expected the typical shouting during praise and worship and pastors enjoying celebrity life like in Nairobi. I was wrong!
Interestingly, church services in the village took-on a different format. Selected elders of the village would speak openly about some of their concerns about the village. The pastor would sit and listen to their wisdom. Some congregants would share their testimonies and thanksgiving. It seemed like it was one big family meeting where the forest somehow brought people together and closer to God. It was evident just how much the people loved the forest and even looked into the Bible for ways to be responsible about God’s creation.
I remember the last church service I attended with Kuka, he was the guest speaker. He spoke about supporting women who often fetched firewood from the forest. They were often attacked by baboons and they too harmed the trees. Kuka requested that the church members get together and take supportive action in finding sustainable solutions. And they did, soon after the service under the leadership of their pastors. Teams were formed, tasks were assigned and action was taken throughout the week. Nobody just talked about ideas. These were often backed by conversations that sought solutions which led to a sense of ownership of the forest; our forest.
It soon became clear to me that the forest was part of us and so we needed to protect it. This is why most of the community members assertively sought jobs from KWS as forest guards. They knew just how important it was to preserve the community’s philosophy alive when it comes to protecting the forest. Also, the community worked with legislators to ensure that industrialists don’t take advantage of areas near the forest. There are no big hotels near the forest to avoid exploitation and disturbing the peace in the forest. It only takes a mighty long drive to the Kakamega forest to realise just how real this is. In the long run, the forest remains a peaceful aboard for beautiful wild animals, trees that are over 500-years-old and a community with generations of wisdom on forest conservation.
So why isn’t the same happening in Kenyan national parks where poaching has been gaining momentum?
I think it all goes back to understanding the role of environmental stewardship. Why? This is because it would take three environmental stewards working together to promote responsible use and protection of the natural environment. They are: (1) Doers (2) Donors and (3) Practitioners.
Doers are the people who volunteer to support the cause by taking action. For example, doers in the Kenyan context would be citizens like myself who visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphan’s Project area to get informed and also adopt elephants. Through this project, doers get to support rescue and rehabilitation efforts for orphaned elephants and rhinos.
Donors are the financial backbone for various causes. Their approaches could be donating money and even holding fundraisers to create awareness and gather financial support for a cause. For example, the First Lady of Kenya on behalf of the government was the fundraising force behind an anti-poaching campaign “Hands Off Our Elephants” to support conservationists and protect elephants in Kenyan National parks.
Practitioners are those who work on a day-to-day basis to gather support from scientists, governmental agencies, stakeholder groups and other groups to promote environmental stewardship outcome. For example, Dr. Paula Kahumbu and her team at WildlifeDirect who initiated the “Hands off our Elephants” campaign. They are a group of practitioners who tirelessly blow the trumpet about elephant poaching in Kenya and gather support from citizens, the government and other agencies for sustainable solutions to fighting poaching in Kenya.
Together, these three groups of warriors form environmental stewards. The best thing is that anybody, even you, can become an environmental steward just by getting informed, being conversant about the environmental situation around you and carrying-on with a personal effort to reduce the likelihood of negatively impacting the environment.
So what works at the Kakamega forest? Well, the three groups which make up a fierce environmental stewards team actively work together for the good of the community and the forest.
If the communities that live around the national parks are supported and educated about their role to protect wildlife and why they need to care about protecting them, then they would begin to take ownership of the wildlife. Too many of them live in poverty and feel abandoned in the process. This is why I believe they keep quiet when the poachers infest their land for a hunting spree. Some have also been facing human-wildlife conflict in their communities but with little or no effective support on how to combat the situation.
What if the donors supported the communities with financial aid? What if the practitioners supported the communities with educational initiatives about environmental stewardship? What if one day the communities became doers and started community initiatives to defend their wildlife?
This could be a reality if Kenyan people began to embrace a culture of environmental stewardship by sharing wisdom, staying informed and actively participating in environmental conservation initiatives.
I believe that it can become a reality but it begins with believing that we as a nation can get there if we work together to our best capacity. If it works in Kakamega forest, it can surely work in our national parks. After all, they are all part of the beautiful Kenyan carpet of nature!
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